Miami's Long, Silly History of Sex Crackdowns

Miami might be viewed as one of America's sexiest cities today, but it has a long history of sex crackdowns and moral panics.
Miami might be viewed as one of America's sexiest cities today, but it has a long history of sex crackdowns and moral panics.
Photo by Giulio Sciorio

Mention Miami today to an out-of-towner, and a few images immediately pop to mind: Crockett and Tubbs in glorious pastel, white-sand beaches, and lots of extremely attractive people in scant clothing bathing in the sun. Miami is sexy. There is no denying it.

But at heart the Magic City is also a good old-fashioned, puritanical Southern town. And Miami has a long, ridiculous history of cracking down on sex and nudity.

Zorita (left) advertised her "snake show" for years but was booked for walking the snake through downtown; cops have also cracked down on nude bars.
Zorita (left) advertised her "snake show" for years but was booked for walking the snake through downtown; cops have also cracked down on nude bars.
via Google Archives, courtesy Leroy Griffith

Miami's First Porn Raid
On the afternoon of July 14, 1913, Miami Police Chief Charles Ferguson showed up at Smith's Book Store on 12th Street — present-day Flagler Street — to conduct what might have been the 17-year-old city's first pornography bust.

Ferguson walked inside and instructed store owner Julius Smith to remove a picture of a nude woman from his shop's window.

"You can't have a picture like that on public display in Miami. She hasn't any clothes on at all," Ferguson admonished Smith while a crowd gathered.

The picture in question was a framed print of a painting by French artist Paul Chabas titled September Morn. In the painting, a nude woman poses demurely in ankle-deep water of a lake in France.

Painted by Chabas in 1911, the picture was front-page news in places like New York and Chicago by 1913. One newspaper called it the "most discussed painting of recent years."

The Miami Metropolis reported that "Chief Ferguson's attention was called to the picture by a telephone call from a woman who asked him to 'just go and see it. It's perfectly awful.'"

Even in those days, the law came to the aid of the store owner, though. Two days later, the Metropolis reported that a city judge declared, "There is no law against the exhibition of such a picture. No one could be forced by law to remove it."

Coral Gables Crackdown
But by the 1920s, if you wanted to ogle naked ladies, all you had to do was drive to the Coral Gables Golf & Country Club.

The stuffy country club, which opened in 1924, featured nude dancers.

However, in 1927, the club changed course and decided to give "dancers with a wardrobe a chance."

The Miami Daily News quoted the club's manager as saying, "Not that we are opposed to dancers au naturel, but we believe the patrons of the club have had sufficient of the terpsichorean endeavors of the young women who eschew clothing in their act."

Ads for nudie shows (left) and nude models on South Beach have caused consternation.
Ads for nudie shows (left) and nude models on South Beach have caused consternation.
photos via Google Archives

Zorita and Her Snake Mesmerize Miami
Shortly before noon February 22, 1939, 21-year-old Ada Brockette went for a stroll on busy Flagler Street in downtown Miami.

Before long, a crowd of a thousand gathered to watch the petite Brockette making her way along the sidewalk with a large snake on a leash. Brockette, in fact, was an exotic dancer who went by the name Zorita.

Soon hordes of lunchtime pedestrians spilled into the street, bringing traffic to a standstill. The cops showed up and transported Zorita and her snake to the police station.

"This whole thing smacks of a publicity gag," several veteran Miami cops told the Miami Daily News.

No way, Zorita said, "We were only taking the morning breeze."

Cops decided to charge Zorita with disorderly conduct because they couldn't find a law on the books that prohibited someone from walking with a snake on Flagler Street.

Two days later, a small ad appeared in the back pages of Friday's Daily News: "ZORITA and her snake opens tonight with a big new show! MINSKY'S BURLESQUE, Million $ Pier, Miami Beach."

That ad in the Daily News was just the first of hundreds of ads for Zorita and her snake that would run in Miami newspapers over the next four decades.

In the 1960s, Zorita opened Zorita's Show Bar on Collins Avenue and 176th Street, which enjoyed a 20-year run.

Criminal Bikinis
On July 5, 1946, a French designer unveiled a daring two-piece swimsuit at a Paris swimming pool. He called his creation a "bikini," after the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific, where, less than a week earlier, the United States conducted a test of the atomic bomb.

But less than ten years after its introduction, some people still had a hard time accepting the fact that women — and some men — were wearing less clothing to the beach than they were in the privacy of their homes.

In June 1953, an enterprising PR Miami agent decided it would be a good idea to kick off the upcoming Fourth of July celebrations by staging a photo op with a bikini-clad model pretending to light a giant firecracker as newspaper photographers happily snapped away.

But after the pictures appeared in the paper, John D. Henderson, a Presbyterian minister, spoke out. "I am humiliated to think that a city like Miami would celebrate the Fourth of July by disgracing womanhood," he told a reporter.

A few months later, a Miami Beach judge ruled that a man who wore a skimpy bikini on the beach was guilty of "improper exposure" and fined him $20. "If you think this is bad, you ought to see the one I have at home," the man told the judge.

On September 1, 1954, Patrona Bugg, a South Beach stripper on the way home from work at 7 a.m., caused a mile-long traffic jam on the MacArthur Causeway after taking a dip in the water near Palm Island.

The Miami Daily News reported that before entering the water, Bugg "put on a leopard-cloth bikini bathing suit, obviously made from a very small leopard."

Four cops showed up and hauled Bugg into court, where, according to the Daily News, she told a judge: "I did not know it was against the law to take a swim in Miami Beach." The judge let her off with a suspended sentence.

In 1960, another Miami Beach nightclub dancer in a bikini ran afoul of the law when she was busted for failing to keep her bikini strings tied while sunning on the beach. A police detective told a judge: "She was coming undone, and hundreds of women and children were offended."

The judge found her innocent but warned her to keep the bikini strings tied.
 

Some people panicked over this racy Miami tourism ad. Leroy Griffith (right) has fought for years to keep his strip club in South Beach.
Some people panicked over this racy Miami tourism ad. Leroy Griffith (right) has fought for years to keep his strip club in South Beach.
photos via Miami Archives, courtesy Leroy Griffith

SoBe's War on Strip Clubs
In 1961, while visiting Miami Beach, Missouri-born Leroy Griffith noticed that the Paris Theater on Washington Avenue was for sale.

At first he leased the place but then eventually bought it and renamed it the Paris Follies. Soon he was staging "adults-only nudist shows."

In a few years, he brought his nudist entertainment to the Gayety Theater in Miami Beach and the Dixie Theater on NE First Avenue in downtown Miami. But before long, Griffith found himself being targeted by law enforcement.

During Thanksgiving week 1964, local cops showed up at "Miami's Home of Adult Entertainment" and shut it down for "operating a motion picture theater without a valid license."

Griffith called the action "harassment."

More than 50 years later, Griffith is still in business, having bought and sold a succession of theaters in Miami, Miami Beach, and Hialeah.

But barely a year has passed in the half-century since Griffith bought the Paris that he hasn't been locked in one legal battle or another with a governmental body.

In 1970, Griffith bought the Boulevard Theater at 7770 Biscayne Blvd., renamed it the Pussycat, and began showing adult films.

A 1993 New Times story reported that Griffith's Pussycat had been raided 18 times between 1976 and 1987.

In 1987, Griffith told the Miami Herald: "I'm glad I live in a city like Miami, where there's no crime and I can give the police something to do. At the Pussycat Theater, we can occupy 10 or 15 police officers and a couple of lieutenants."

More recently, Griffith has been locked in an on-again, off-again fight with the city over his liquor license.

Miami's First Anti-Smut Crusader
Today Miami's main criminal courthouse is called the Richard E. Gerstein Criminal Justice Building.

It's named for the late Dade State Attorney Richard Gerstein, who was elected to the office in 1956 to the first of six terms.

Upon his death in 1992, the Miami Herald called Gerstein "a larger-than-life figure in Dade County politics for more than 20 years and one of Florida's most colorful and influential prosecutors."

But the Herald also noted that "during his first decade in office, Gerstein waged constant battle against what he viewed as pornography. He tried repeatedly to shut down adult movie theaters and he personally purchased nudist magazines in attempts to bring cases against magazine shop owners." Via the Herald:

In perhaps his most publicized case, he prosecuted the owner of Whelan's Drug Store in Miami Beach for selling a copy of Henry Miller's acclaimed novel Tropic of Cancer for 95 cents. "Clearly obscene and pornographic," Gerstein called it.

He failed to win a conviction. Yet he insisted he opposed censorship. "We've acted only on complaints about straight garbage. Junk that no one even pretends has any literary merit," he said then.

In the early 1960s, Gerstein targeted homosexuals after a national magazine listed Miami as one of six U.S. cities favored by them. In addition to developing lists of people suspected of being what he called "perverts," Gerstein defended his crusade, saying that homosexuality "inevitably leads to serious criminal activity, including blackmail and extortion based on knowledge of the deviate's actions."

Scandalous Ads
In 1979, Dade County tourism officials hired an ad agency to design an ad campaign that would lure a younger demographic to South Florida.

With the catch phrase “Miami. See it like a native,” the centerpiece of the campaign was a full-color poster featuring a photo of female snorkeler wearing a bikini bottom and no top with her back to the camera.

The ink on the poster was barely dry before the objections flooded in.

"We have no objection with the rest of the campaign," one activist told reporters, "but a half-nude woman cannot serve any other purpose than sexual titillation."

The county commission acquiesced to the demands and ordered the posters — all 23,000 — impounded.

A year later, they were shredded.

Censoring Miami's TV
In the spring of 1982, Miami Mayor Maurice Ferré was visiting New York City.

One night after returning to his Upper East Side hotel room following a late dinner, Ferré turned on the TV set and began looking for a late newscast.

He pushed the buttons on the channel selector but stopped before he found the news.

He apparently took notes that night, because months later he was able to describe to a reporter — in vivid detail — what he saw on the screen.

"There it was," Ferre said. "I saw it and couldn't believe it. It was a shocker because I didn't expect to see it."

What had shocked Miami's mayor, the man who presides over a city that has more than 500 homicides a year?

"It was a bunch of people totally naked, sitting around talking about sex. Frankly, if they weren't so ugly, it wouldn't have been so bad, but they were such horrible-looking people. There was one guy talking about what aroused him, and he was sitting there playing around with himself.

"I don't think that's porno as such, but is that the kind of thing we should have on a television screen?" the mayor asked.

After returning to Miami, Ferré persuaded the city commission to approve the placement of a straw poll on the ballot in a primary election scheduled for September that would let voters decide whether to approve a ban on pornography on city's cable system.

The ballot question passed by a slim 52-to-48 percent margin.

In January 1983, the Miami City Commission unanimously approved a ban on cable porn.

But less than seven months after the ban was passed, a federal judge overturned it calling the ordinance "unconstitutional."

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge William M. Hoeveler wrote, "It is difficult to predict where our tolerance of licentiousness will end. The 'end,' however, cannot be induced by use of a blunderbuss."

The city appealed, but in March 1985, a federal appeals court in Atlanta upheld Hoeveler's decision.

Nude Models on the Beach
By the mid-'80s, filmmakers and TV producers were beginning to discover South Beach.

The area's crumbling and faded art deco hotels — once home to elderly Jewish retirees and Mariel refugees — were being bought up by savvy investors, who in turn were partly responsible for luring New York fashion editors, European photographers, and models eager for a new look.

And with them, they brought a more relaxed attitude about nudity.

So in 1986, it wasn't really that big of a deal when renowned fashion photographer Bruce Weber posed six tanned, well-oiled, and very naked male and female models on the roof of Ocean Drive's Breakwater hotel for a magazine ad for Calvin Klein's Obsession cologne for men.

"I didn't see anything. I always sit facing the ocean," an 83-year-old beachgoer told the Miami Herald.

Suddenly, in a town where an exotic dancer was once hauled into court for failing to keep her bikini strings tied, nudity was something that no one noticed.

In 1992, the Herald's Tracie Cone, looking back at the moment, wrote that Weber "snapped a picture that would make Miami Beach fabulous again."

Correction: This story originally misidentified Leroy Griffith's birthplace. 


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